Although last year was a banner year for snow peas and cucumbers and other summer garden delights, the tomatoes here were a bust. And even the usually reliable yellow tomatoes didn’t perform well.  The cool summer was lovely, but not ideal for our beloved Solanum lycopersicums. While we can’t control the weather, there are some things we can do to tilt the scales towards happy, healthy and productive plants. Here are a few tips to get the tomatoes off and running this year:

  1. Build good soil – work compost into the soil (homegrown is the best – you know where it came from) before planting, use more of this good compost as a mulch
  2. Buy tomatoes from reputable nurseries  if you didn’t start from seed this year
  3. Balance hybrids with heirlooms – hybrids are bred to be resistant to wilts and blights and other diseases while heirlooms, grown for their superior taste, are less resistant
  4. Try grafted tomatoes – hardy root stock and heirloom top
    ~ Grafted tomatoes are starting to show up in some nurseries, or you can experiment with grafting (more on that topic later)
  5. Wait to plant until the soil has  thoroughly warmed before planting as there is no real benefit to getting the plants in the ground when it’s still cool
  6. Good drainage, good spacing between plants (2-3 feet), good support (here’s how to build a better tomato cage )
  7. Limit your use of fertilizer – excess fertilizer can lead to vegetative growth but not so much fruit production
  8. Rotating planting for all members of the nightshade family – not planting tomatoes, peppers, eggplants or potatoes in the same spot where a tomato, pepper, eggplant or potato was planted the previous year (hard to do in small urban garden!)

Other tips for growing good tomatoes?

Here’s hoping that Mother Nature cooperates and helps make this a banner year for tomatoes (and all the other good summer garden veggies). Because there’s nothing in the world like home grown tomatoes!

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Irene came to call this weekend- despite rain (4.5″) and high winds the damage here was minimal. Tomato cages toppled, big basil plant broken but otherwise we came out in good shape.

Goodnight, Irene (and other hurricane songs)

Here’s a hint – don’t waste your money on store bought tomato cages. You see them in the big box stores – cone shaped with a few metal rings, usually 3′ high and 1′ in diameter

While these cages will support tomatoes in their early stages of growth, just about every tomato will be at least 5′ high, with indeterminate tomato  growing 8′ or more. And depending on the type, tomatoes will grow 3 – 5′ wide. These store bought cages will not provide the support your tomatoes need and will easily topple over during a strong wind.

Want to build a better tomato cage? Start with concrete reinforcing wire (usually sold in 50′ rolls), bolt cutters and a good set of work gloves. Cut off 5′ lengths, leaving “fingers’ along one length. Use pliers to make a hook at the end of each finger. Shape the section into a hoop, using the finger hooks to hold the hoop together (you can also secure the hoop with plastic ties or wire).

Place two cages side by side and insert a 4′ metal stake or rebar in between the cages. Secure both cages to the stake – this will keep the cages from falling over during wind or rain.

Note: You’ll want to plant your tomatoes before you secure the tomato cages to the stake. I usually plant two tomatoes per cage.

These cages are also great supports for peas, pole beans, cucumbers and small melons.

And although they will rust, they will also last for 15+ years.